In September 2012 the Chinese Government reacted strongly to the then Japanese Government's purchase, from a private Japanese owner, of the Senkaku Islands (in Chinese, the Diaoyu Islands). Since then, the often delicate relationship between China and Japan has been in a parlous state of high tension with Japan taking measures to underpin its sovereignty claims to the Islands and insisting that, technically, there is no dispute.
China ratcheted up its counter-claims to sovereignty over the island chain, quoting historical documents and both Chinese and selected international historians' viewpoints. Regular overflights, seaborne transits, declaration of an air defence identification zone in the area covering the island chain and a relentless media campaign became the features of an increasingly assertive Chinese stand. Close shaves between military aircraft raised concerns for many countries in the Asia Pacific that any incident would risk a more serious conflict.
In late July 2014, commentators noted the first tentative signs of thawing in the stand-off. It seems Sino-Japan relations have indeed begun to pull back from the high tension that marked the relationship over much of 2013-2014.
Speculation now circulating suggests that a summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take place on the sidelines of the APEC leaders' meeting in Beijing from 10-11 November 2014.
In July 2014, a number of events occurred, some of them seemingly unrelated. But taken together, these events suggest that China has changed tack on managing the serious issues it faces as a result of its assertive claims of sovereignty in both the South China and East China Seas.
First, in mid-July China announced that, a month earlier than planned, it had withdrawn a massive oil rig conducting exploratory activities in waters long claimed by Vietnam. The Chinese oil rig's assumptive presence in these waters had triggered armed incidents at sea. Major protests against ethnic Chinese and their assets in Vietnam erupted over the 73 days the rig was in the contested waters.
Second, sometime in mid/late July, China's politiburo leadership reached agreement on the earlier rumoured formal 'investigation' of Zhou Yongkang on suspicion of grave violations of party discipline. Zhou is the highest-ranking party leader or former leader to be so treated since China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This decision was publicly announced in China on 29 July. While best known for his role as China's security tsar, Zhou was also head of the petroleum faction in the Chinese leadership, giving him huge power.
Perhaps it is coincidence that these two events occurred around the same time, but it raises the intriguing question of whether Zhou's demise meant that the Chinese leadership could more easily cease the activities of a controversial oil rig that was concurrently seriously undermining China's relations not only with Vietnam but with other South East Asian neighbours as well.
A third event occurred on 27 July, with an 'unannounced' meeting in Beijing between Xi Jinping and Yasuo Fukuda, a former Japanese prime minister who enjoys a respected reputation in China. This was the first meeting by any Japanese visitor with Xi Jinping since Xi's formal appointment as President of the PRC in March 2013. The meeting was kept secret (despite rumours in the Japanese press) until Fukuda announced it on 27 August. Fukuda later made clear that he and Xi shared the same sense of crisis about bilateral ties. *
Even before Fukuda's announcement, one of those intriguing signs so often indicative of much deeper things was being touted among American China watchers. They had picked up on a photo essay published on 21 August in the China Daily, not a formal mouthpiece of the Communist Party but nevertheless largely controlled by it.
Deng Xiaoping's foreign affairs experiences 'across the years' were illustrated. Of the thirteen photos published, five related to the US and three to Japan, including Deng's meetings with Japanese Emperor Hirohito and with former Prime Minister Nakasone. Perhaps no signal was intended but in past years this kind of editing would certainly have been pregnant with carefully intended meaning, given that relations with Japan at the time of publication had otherwise been pushed to the lowest levels of goodwill.
A senior Japanese business delegation visited China in mid-September to address issues relating to the estimated 40% fall in the past year of Japanese investment in China. Then, from 23-24 September the second meeting of the Japan-China high level consultations on maritime affairs took place, the first since 2012. According to press releases issued by both sides, the meeting was productive. Concern that there must be improvement in communications between the defence authorities of each side was mentioned in the press releases.
Whether a summit between Xi and Abe will take place this year will perhaps not be clear until last-minute scheduling is in place. But the groundswell is underway, pending expected planning visits by officials.
Critical issues would certainly need to be covered off before a constructive leaders' meeting could occur. The standoff over whether there is, or is not, technically a 'dispute' over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is the first matter needing to be finessed. Any wording proposed for referring to differences of approach to questions of ownership will require sensitive negotiation. A possible compromise on terminology might refer to there being a 'diplomatic difference' rather than a legal dispute between the two countries on the matter of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The historical issues which regularly obstruct normalisation of the relationship will also require deft handling. Notable among those will be China's demand that Prime Minister Abe agree not to make another visit to the Yasakuni Shrine while in office.
* This article has not addressed the broader complexity of intentions and issues behind China's recently formally upgraded annual events to mark Japanese wartime atrocities in China. Sino-Japanese bilateral relations can only be more fully understood when careful consideration is given as to what or who are the influential contemporary and historical, political and economic drivers on each nation's side.
Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.